Are the Social Trinity and Panentheism Incommensurable?

Are the Social Trinity and Panentheism Incommensurable? May 10, 2011

Last week, I wrote about a question at my dissertation defense over which I stumbled.  There was one other question that tripped me up.

Stacy Johnson is one of my favorite professors at Princeton, though I never took a class from him.  (He is also the author of possibly the very best book on GLBT issues in the church, A Time to Embrace.)  Stacy is not, however, a fan of Jurgen Moltmann, my theological muse.  And at my defense, he asked me a question that he really has for Moltmann:

How can someone be committed to a social doctrine of the Trinity, in which the godhead is seen as an eternal, interpenetrating relationship of three divine persons, and also a panentheist, in which God is in all things and all things are in God?

It’s a good question, for it would seem that a commitment to the social Trinity requires an understanding of God as sovereign Other, whereas panentheism seems at odds with that commitment.

Moltmann is also committed to the Jewish Kabbalistic belief that God was all before the creation, but God withdrew Godself just enough to make room for a creation that is other than God.  This was God’s first act of self-limitation.  As a Christian theologian, Moltmann goes on argue that, as Paul memorializes in the great hymn of Philippians 2, the incarnation/crucifixion event is the ultimate act of self-limitation by God, to the point of humiliation.

So, the Moltmannian answer — and mine — to Stacy’s question is that throughout the “trinitarian history of God,” and most poignantly in the incarnation/crucifixion/resurrection, the eternal relationship that is the Trinity re-embraces all of creation back into Itself.  We are ever-invited into this divine, loving relationality.

PS: the thesis of my dissertation is that our church structures should reflect this eternal, egalitarian relationality.  They don’t, but they should.

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  • Beau

    Tony, are there plans to publish your dissertation? Will we in the general public be able to read it? It sounds interesting.

  • Interesting stuff. You know Rublev’s icon of the Trinity? It always gets me because the three “persons” are relatively androgynous and completely indistinguishable–no one person (maybe not even Rublev) knows who’s who…and they’re sitting around a table…

    Which has always led me to think (like Nouwen says) we’re invited to sit at that table. I get there a bit more through process than I do Moltmann, but we’re invited to co-create with the Tri-une–and I can’t think of anything more beautiful.

  • Dan Hauge

    I need to understand panentheism better than I do. Does it maintain that God is *fully* in all things (at least since the Incarnation/Crucifixion/Resurrection event)? Does it completely blur the line between God and Creation? But if that’s so, why is any kind of reconciliation, or even any kind of invitation, necessary at all? We are already fully in God and God in us, right? And so it would have to follow that all that we see in creation, including how we relate with each other, already fully reflects God’s nature.

    I am OK with the notion that all of creation is ever-invited into relationship with the relating Trinity. But doesn’t that still require the Trinity to be an Other, in some way? When I am in relationship with someone else (be it God, my mom, or a pet cat) it is still relationship with Some Other One, not just being in relationship with myself. I guess I don’t see the notion of God as some kind of Sovereign Other as incompatible with us being ever-invited into loving relationship with this other.

  • Johnboy

    Tony, with qualifications, I do not see an incommensurability.

    I call my own approach a pan-semio-entheism precisely because I choose to prescind from any robustly metaphysical descriptions (an ontology) to a more vague phenomenological perspective, which categorizes our experiences of God in relational terms based on our intuitions, evaluations and performative responses that ensue in the wake of these experiences. Those categories include 1) intraobjective identity – regarding our vague intuitions of an absolute unitary being 2) – intersubjective intimacy – regarding our unitive strivings 3) intrasubjective integrity – think of Lonergan’s conversions & formative spirituality and 4) interobjective indeterminacy – which hints at the methodological constraints and putative ontological occulting that thwart natural theological inquiry, as some claim in-principle (which is too strong a position to defend philosophically) and as I acknowledge, instead for all practical purposes, at least, at this stage of humankind’s sojourn.

    So, a suitably nuanced panentheism is not an ontology or metaphysic or natural theology but, instead, a theology of nature, which employs metaphor, analogy, myth, koan, song and dance. It does not aspire to describe what remains indescribable, to say more than we can possibly no, does not attempt to prove too much or to tell untellable stories. The above-categories certainly have ontological implications (which get analytically frustrated) that might flow from those distinct phenomenological categories of our God-experience but they honor, with reverent silence and respectful apophasis, the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Our panentheism is then saying much more about the value-realizations that grow out of our God-encounters but much less about causal joints and divine mechanics. We affirm THAT values are being realized from experiences without specifying HOW.

    It is worth noting that in our other metaphysical adventures, nowadays, we know better than to use a modal ontology of possible, actual and necessary but now substitute “probable” for necessary. Confronted with epistemic indeterminacy and ontological vagueness in navigating proximate reality, how much more folly we would engage when attempting to describe ultimate reality? Still, everywhere in reality, necessity suggest itself even as, nowhere in reality, have we found it physically instantiated. Still, Charles Sanders Peirce speaks of our abduction of the Ens Necessarium and I resonate with that inference, weak though it may be. I precisely make the same appeal to the Jewish intuition of God’s shrinking to make room for reality and my own theology of nature then sees emergent reality participating in various degrees of semiotic freedom in an ontological-like hierarchy (crowned by the imago Dei).

    So, I don’t embrace some neo-Platonic participatory ontology of proodos, mone and epistrophe as a description of metaphysical reality, much less God ad intra or ad extra in a natural theology. But I do believe it is enormously helpful to honor and thereby categorize the many human phenomenal experiences of God that ensue from our subjunctive (as if) encounters of God in creed, cult, code and community in a theology of nature that is self-aware of its metaphorical, mythical, liturgical nature as qualifed by suitable kataphatic, apophatic and relational predication and generally revealed. The Trinity and God’s relational nature is specially revealed as Love, exceeding anything we could otherwise infer empirically, logically, practically or morally from nature.

    At least this is my attempt to grapple with the same issues.

  • Zizek is interesting on this point, interpreting Schelling on why God would limit itself in the act of creation. From “The Puppet and the Dwarf:”

    “What does the becoming-man of God in the figure of Christ, His descent from eternity to the temporal realm of our reality, mean for God himself? What if that which appears to us, finite mortals, as God’s descent toward us, is, from the standpoint of God Himself, an ascent? What if, as Schelling implied, eternity is less than temporality? What if eternity is a sterile, impotent, lifeless domain of pure potentialities, which, in order to fully actualize itself, has to pass through temporal existence? What if God’s descent to man, far from being an act of grace toward humanity, is the only way for God to gain full actuality, and to liberate himself from the suffocating restraints of eternity? What if God actualizes himself only through human recognition?… what if eternity is the ultimate prison, a suffocating closure, and it is only the fall into time that introduces Opening into human experience? Is time not the name of ontological opening? The Event of ‘incarnation’ is thus not so much when the ordinary temporal reality touches eternity, but, rather, the time when eternity reaches into time.”

    So here, perhaps, building on Pete Rollins’ earlier description of God as “Event” we have God becoming actual (temporal) in the incarnation, so if we are to speak of God as an ontological being within our scope of language and understanding, the ‘Event’ of incarnation is the best place to start. So to tie this back, as Tony said, “Trinity re-embraces all of creation back into Itself” and it is in this sense that God not only invites us into his Perichoresis, but we make that triune relationship “Real” and it is made real to us. So while God may have eternal “potentiality” in all things, only through our recognition of God as such is the (triune) God made real, through revelation. I’m not sure Stacey Johnson and Kenda Dean would be happy with a sloppy Zizek citation to answer both of their questions ; )

  • Johnboy

    Dan, I’ve seen two other parsings of panentheism: a fundamentalist take, panen-theism, which sees God as part of all things but more than the sum of all things; a more orthodox parsing, pan-entheism, which sees God indwelling in all things (and which could square with the Whiteheadian-Hartshornean process approach).

  • I would really like to read your dissertation as well. Selfishly it might be really helpful in writing my thesis for my Masters 🙂 Writing about ecclesiology and nature of the Trinity using Moltmann, Boff, and Zizoulas. Thanks for the interesting post.

  • Jordan

    I too (three) am also interested in reading your dissertation. Its sounding like it could be a little fun!

  • Tony,

    I think that is a great questions. I’m not sure that issue is really between the “social trinity” and “panentheism” because there are so many versions of the social trinity that some may be compatible and others not. It seems that divide is, as Stacey Johnson says, that the “godhead is seen as an eternal, interpenetrating relationship of three divine persons.” This implies a division between Creator/creation, eternity/time, divisions which some find unsavory these day (b/c of Moltmann in part).

    I think a good example of the trinity and panentheism existing together is in Hegel, who is the source of inspiration for Žižek (coupled with Schelling, noted by Bo). (It might be said that Moltmann repudiates Hegel’s progressivism of Spirit, but it is pretty clear the huge debt Moltmann has toward Hegel, especially in “Crucified God”, and he is openly neoplatonic at the beginning of “Trinity and Kingdom”) But Cyril O’Regan argues that Hegel is really a ‘narrative modalist’ in his trinitarian theology (i.e. the Trinity unfolds in stages, with each stage having its own narrative), rather than a social trinitarian. But Žižek has no actual theory of the trinity, just of God as the first atheist.

    But I echo the others, is your dissertation available through the Princeton library.

  • i videoed a reply…..Elgin doesn’t let me type.

  • These are all really interesting questions.

    Is this dissertation going to make it into print?

  • Johnboy

    I enjoyed your disquisition, Tripp. I like the eschatological distinction, a a panentheistic reality I believe we nevertheless realize proleptically via a putative telic dynamic (pneumatologically even). Still, I rest comfortably with vague conceptual distinctions and resist more robust ontological descriptions, which introduce as many problems as they aspire to resolve.

    Below is an excerpt from Amos Yong’s dissertation that raises other considerations:

    “Neville, however, would object to speaking about the immanent trinitarian persons apart from or prior to the creative act. He would be very cautious about the ‘vice versa’ at the end of the axiom, ‘the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity,’ heralded by Rahner. … … [S]ince theology (God in Godself) derives from the second moment of reflection on oikonomia (God in relation to the world), we must be wary of proceeeding too quickly from a conceptual distinction of immanent-economic to an ontological equivalence. As LaCugna has summarized, the two major problems that arise with an uncritical equation of the immanent and economic Trinity are the loss of divine ineffability, and, ironically, the implicit denial of the divine freedom given the symmetry asserted of God ad intra and ad extra. It has already been mentioned that Neville’s interpretation of creation ex nihilo preserves both the divine mystery and freedom, precisely via the asymmetrical act of creation.”

    from Amos Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s): A Pentecostal-Charismatic Contribution to Christian Theology of Religions. Journal of Pentecostal Theology Supplement Series 20. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000